(Bloomberg) -- It was a near-fist fight on the House floor. It was four days of name-calling, late-night huddles, rush deliveries of pizzas and burritos. It was cigar smoke wafting through the hallways, diaper changes and a dog on the floor of the US House of Representatives.
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Establishment Republicans were horrified. Democrats snickered. Comedian Jon Stewart called it the best season of C-SPAN ever.
In this circus began the first week of the new Congress with Republicans in charge of the House but conflicted about their leader, Kevin McCarthy. Rules weren’t broken because they were non-existent. Post-Civil War records were shattered, and long-held Republican traditions were abandoned.
Maybe that’s why, near the increasingly bitter end of this endless first week, McCarthy ally Mike Rogers saw fit to lunge at Republican villain Matt Gaetz for delivering McCarthy what appeared to be a fatal blow by leaving him one vote short of winning the 14th ballot..But McCarthy, lauded by colleagues for his resilience, came back from the dead. He won in the 15th round, after midnight at the beginning of the fifth day.
This behind-the-scenes account of each tumultuous day is based on conversations with dozens of lawmakers and congressional staff and observations between McCarthy supporters and the “Never Kevins,” a hardcore group of conservatives.
Little about this week has gone well for McCarthy, and yet he finally claimed his longed-for speakership. It will, however, be a significantly weakened post.
McCarthy has made numerous concessions to win the title and the ornate office, which he’d prematurely occupied to clear out his old digs for Hakeem Jeffries, the incoming minority leader.
Meetings, Meetings and More Meetings
To dissidents within his own party, McCarthy was an unwelcome squatter in the speaker’s office before the week even began.
On Monday, the day before the speaker’s election, the California Republican huddled briefly with about a dozen of his backers in his new suite next to the Capitol Rotunda, tasking them with selling friends and foes alike on a package of new rules that promised greater influence for hard-liners in exchange for their votes.
Neither side, not surprisingly, was happy. Andy Biggs of Arizona, McCarthy’s first GOP challenger for speaker, tweeted that McCarthy had “gone into total bargaining mode” to get eleventh-hour support. Some like Dusty Johnson of South Dakota warned McCarthy was giving away the store.
McCarthy’s backers were already acknowledging he wouldn’t win the speakership right away — a departure from a century of speakers elections easily won on the first ballot. But, they stressed, he’d eventually get it.
Next, McCarthy beckoned a few opponents to his office, and it didn’t go well. Gaetz professed he was still a “no.” Others, including Lauren Boebert of Colorado, had little to say to reporters.
The following day, Republicans gathered behind closed doors, and McCarthy’s supporters gave him a raucous standing ovation. McCarthy, standing at a podium in front of an American flag, reminded Republicans he delivered them the majority (slim though it is). The master fundraiser at one point said he’d “earned” the job.
But out in the hallway, there was buzz that as many as 20 Republicans were ready to defect, and McCarthy supporters swung into damage control before the meeting was even over.
Florida Representative Kat Cammack told reporters there were really just five adamant opponents who were ungrateful for the $97 million McCarthy raised to help elect Freedom Caucus members to the House. Others who were wavering would change their minds on the floor, she insisted, when members see “the gravity of the situation.”
Pelosi Sets the Gavel Down
Soon after on the House floor, Speaker Nancy Pelosi gaveled the 117th session to an end, receiving a standing ovation of her own. She then left her lacquered maple gavel on the table for her successor’s election to begin.
Recent Republican speakers-to-be, including Newt Gingrich, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, stayed out of the vote during their coronations. But half an hour later, McCarthy walked in. He needed every vote he could get — including his own.
It was an afternoon that unfolded in humiliation and havoc, with McCarthy losing 19 Republicans on the first ballot. The numbers against McCarthy subsequently grew to 20. That evening, Jeffries, the minority leader, said Democrats wouldn’t help McCarthy. Republicans, he said, had descended into “chaos, crisis and confusion.”
In a GOP office suite overlooking the National Mall, McCarthy hunkered down for more than three hours. Pizza was delivered as his leadership team made calls. Leaving that meeting, Representative Patrick McHenry insisted that McCarthy stepping aside “was not on the table.” McCarthy, McHenry said, was still making offers of committee assignments and other “gifts of the institution.”
Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry, Gaetz and other opponents met with McCarthy, to no avail. But at the end of the night, an undeterred McCarthy said there was no viable alternative to him.
On Wednesday morning, former President Donald Trump entered the fray, urging conservatives to back the man he once called “My Kevin.” But the needle didn’t budge. The dissidents’ demands grew.
Gaetz wanted to chair a House Armed Services subcommittee. Maryland Representative Andy Harris, a strong abortion opponent, wanted to lead the Appropriations subcommittee on health and human services. A newcomer freshman, GOP Representative Andrew Ogles, wanted to sit on two plum panels — Judiciary and Financial Services.
As the week progressed, lawmakers found their long periods on the House floor uncommonly chronicled, as tight restrictions for TV cameras and photographers were suspended in the absence of a speaker. One notable subject of curiosity were the activities of scandal-plagued George Santos of New York, and his efforts to bond with some of his colleagues.
Running in Place
Faced with no other option, McCarthy sat through more rounds of ballots, expertly smiling and pumping his fist though he gained no ground. Pelosi, always game for trolling her opponents, sat on the House floor flipping through an unflattering New Yorker profile of her would-be successor.
At one point, Gaetz stood on a step, gleefully waving his hands and addressing a group of conservatives like a college football coach.
A short while later, McCarthy backer Ken Buck said he’d warned the embattled GOP leader that he needed to either close the deal with conservatives or let someone else take a shot at the speakership. The House, he said, was “in a state of disarray and chaos.”
Dissidents soon received a fresh batch of concessions, including an even easier way to push McCarthy out of the job if only they would let him win the election. Gaetz called McCarthy “a desperate guy.”
On Thursday morning, McCarthy supporter Steve Womack left a meeting of the GOP leader’s side unhappy with the concessions. Frustrated, he said, is too “mild” a word.
McCarthy tried to dodge a phalanx of reporters as he left that meeting, diving into the House members’ dining room. But they greeted him at the exit. “Nothing’s gonna change but what we’re doing is we’re having really good progress in conversation,” McCarthy said on the way into yet another failed vote.
That one took longer than usual because Perry was on Fox News telling conservative viewers there was no deal. Waiting for the vote to finally be called, McCarthy looked spent and almost lifeless.
Democrats’ glee spilled out on the floor, and at the White House.
“I’m following it with great — how can I say it?” President Joe Biden said, turning to Vice President Kamala Harris and grinning. “Attention,” she responded with a smile. “Attention,” Biden repeated.
Another round of meetings was taking place back in Representative Tom Emmer’s office, suddenly command central for the speaker campaign. Allies and foes would talk over nearly nine hours.
The House, meanwhile, rejected McCarthy for the ninth time, setting a post-Civil War record of defeats. The 10th and 11th ballots yielded the same results.
Members in both parties were getting restless, with Representative Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican, bringing her dog on the floor. Two Democrats - Jimmy Gomez of California and Joaquin Castro of Texas — brought their babies along with them.
Uncertainty was still buzzing through the hallways on Friday morning, and not only from the lawmakers. Two workers for the Capitol grounds were overheard discussing the logistics involved in moving McCarthy into the speaker’s office — and the prospect of having to immediately do it for someone else.
But then, as often happens in Washington, the tide suddenly turned in McCarthy’s favor.
The 12th round started off auspiciously, with most Republicans walking out during a fiery speech from Gaetz, who called McCarthy "the LeBron James of special-interest fundraising.”
McCarthy picked up some votes in that round, and even more in the next. So much so that Republicans were certain that 14 would be his lucky number. It wasn’t.
But after arm twisting on the floor and some final calls from Trump, the seasoned GOP leader gave up just enough to get the speakership, such as it now is.
“The preference in politics is to always suffer your indignities in private, not in public. That was the goal,” McHenry told reporters. “And by last weekend, it was evident that we would have to suffer this in public.”
--With assistance from Laura Davison, Emily Wilkins, Jarrell Dillard and Josh Wingrove.
(Updates with McHenry quote in last paragraph.)
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